Text Study for John 4:46-52 (Part 1)

6 Epiphany C 2022 (Narrative Lectionary)

I’m preaching in a local parish this Sunday, and they use the Narrative Lectionary. So, I’m going to do my work on the gospel text appointed in that lectionary this week. Therefore, we return to the Gospel of John for this week, at least. To be honest, I’m struggling with the anti-Judaism potential in the Lukan readings, and I need some more time to work this out. So, I’m glad for the “out” I’ve been given to think about a different set of texts for a while.

To what lengths might you go to keep your child from dying? One answer to this question comes in the form of a TEDx talk by Anneliese Clark. I don’t recommend this talk with any political or medical motives. I think, however, that is a contemporary illustration of the distance parents will go to save our children. I imagine you can see the connection to the story in John 4:46-54. You might see a variety of connections, and you can share those in the comments if you wish.

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I would travel to the ends of earth and the heights of heaven searching for a cure for my sick child. I would rather have one of my arms ripped off than to have one of my children suffer. I know very few parents who feel less passion for their children’s health. So, here in the Johannine account, we have an eminently relatable and painfully dramatic healing story.

To what lengths might you go to keep your child from dying? Traveling far is a significant theme in the Gospel of John. “Geography is theology in John,” writes Jaime Clark-Soles in her workingpreacher.org commentary. Jesus and his disciples go from Galilee to Judea and back again numerous times in the Johannine account. It is a gospel about covering great distances.

That’s true geographically. But it is truer sociologically and theologically. Let’s think about the social distance between Jesus and the “ruler” who meets him in Cana. Soles notes that scholars debate the ethnic identity of this upper-class, elite person. She notes that the official might be a Roman and therefore Gentile official.

Or the ruler may be a Hellenistic Jew serving in the administration of Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet ruler of Galilee. In addition, Herod certainly had Gentiles in his administration, so there are no guarantees about the ethnic identity of the ruler in any event. Soles argues that the ruler is likely a Roman official. She connects the Johannine report to the accounts of the healing of the centurion’s son in Matthew 8 and Luke 7. She also suggests that “given the emphasis in this cycle of expanding inclusivity, it makes sense to construe him as Gentile.”

That may well be the case, but it seems to me that responding to a Herodian official would create just as much of a challenge for Jesus. Herod was half-Jewish and half-Edomite. His family is a collection of thugs and murderers. They are despised by their subjects and mocked by their Roman overlords. They are (or soon will be) responsible for the execution of John the Forerunner (he’s not really the Baptizer in the Johannine account). So, an oppressor for sure – whether Jew or Gentile.

Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the title for the man is vague at best. It is an adjective that should be translated as “royal,” as in “he was a ‘royal’.” They argue that he was likely a member of the Herodian family, due to the reference to his whole household and to his position as a slaveholder. “In any case,” they continue, “whether a royal retainer or a royal aristocrat, the man whose son is near death would be very high on the social scale in a town like Capernaum. He is certainly not the type,” they conclude, “who would normally seek the patronage of a villager from Nazareth” (page 107).

How far would I go to get my son saved? I certainly wouldn’t let any ethnic markers get in the way if I thought someone could help.

The Royal isn’t the only one who crosses these ethnic boundaries. The first boundary Jesus crosses in this story is ethnic. He has moved from working among the Galilean Jews to the Jews in Judea. Then he spends two days building a faith community among the Samaritans in Sychar. Now he is open to bringing healing (which can also be construed as “saving”) to a (Herodian) Gentile. When we read the Johannine account, we must always remember that it is the cosmos that God loves by sending the Son (John 3:16, John 4:42).

“On the heels of Jesus’ presence in Samaria is now his mission to the gentiles,” Karoline Lewis writes. “The world that God loves just keeps getting bigger” (page 70).

The second, and more imposing, boundary Jesus crosses in this story is the boundary of class or honor status. Let’s consider this first from the perspective of the ruler. He moves from near the top of the social scale to near the bottom of that scale. When he asks Jesus for a favor, he makes Jesus his “patron” and is now beholden to him. It is a sign of the Royal’s desperation that he comes in person and doesn’t send an enslaved person or a freed person to speak on his behalf.

The Royal depends on reports of Jesus’ signs in Jerusalem as he decides to seek out this “savior.” Malina and Rohrbaugh note that this connection will have serious reputational repercussions. They argue that the word for “beg” in the text is a term one uses to describe seeking a favor from a patron. They note that the Royal addresses Jesus with a respectful title. And, they suggest, “Since word of the aristocrat’s begging would spread quickly in a small town, [the Royal] risks serious public dishonor by doing so unless his behavior was warranted by Jesus’ reputation” (page 107).

So, how far would you go to save your son? Reputation be damned – I want someone who will get the job done! This means that the Royal goes from powerful to powerless, from dominance to desperation. I may have too much faith in the Johannine author’s subtlety, but I wonder if this is reflected in another geographic feature of the text. Capernaum is over 200 feet below sea level. Cana is nearly seven hundred feet above sea level. Even the topography reveals the real status of the players involved.

Malina and Rohrbaugh devote an extended reading scenario in their commentary to the subject of patronage. They define patronage as “a system of generalized reciprocity between social unequals in which a lower-status person in need (called a client) is granted favors by a higher-status, well-situated person (called a patron).”

A favor is something you need that you can’t get on your own. “By entering a patron-client arrangement, the client relates to his patron as to a superior and more powerful kinsman,” they continue, “while the patron sees to his clients as dependents” (page 117).

So, how far would you go to save your son? First of all, it appears that the Royal willingly traveled the twenty-four miles from Capernaum to Cana. Even if he could access wheeled and horse-drawn transportation (which was likely), this was still most of a two-day’s journey uphill and through some rough terrain.

Second of all, the Royal surrenders his power, position, and privilege in order to get his son saved. A powerful man expects to dictate terms, to control information, to give orders, and to get results. But here, he needs to take a chance on gossip, trust a promise, and go on a journey, the outcome of which is uncertain. He is on unfamiliar terrain in every dimension of his experience. But often, there’s a slim difference between desperation and faith.

Then, let’s consider this from Jesus’ perspective. He is often critical of the elites who come to him with questions and critiques. He is suspicious of those who claim privileged and power. Not long before he has had a challenging conversation with Nicodemus, one that seems to indicate Jesus’ attitude, at least in the Johannine account, toward those who are at “the top” and should be in the know. That conversation ends without a conclusion. We don’t yet know how the Jerusalem establishment might respond to Jesus, but things aren’t looking good.

Perhaps this accounts for the relatively cool reception Jesus gives the man when he arrives. We should be careful about how we hear the text, however. When Jesus talks about the relationship between signs and believing, all the “you’s” in the sentence are plural (verse 48). He’s not addressing the frantic father specifically. This is a word to the observing crowd who are hoping for more theological fireworks.

Desperate human need is a great leveler of hierarchies. When one’s child is on the verge of death, a parent doesn’t spend a lot of time checking the social register to research the pedigree of the potential healer. Dire necessity closes the sociological and ethnic gaps with lightning speed – at least for the ruler. When a loved one is dying, human distinctions matter very little. The man is like you and me – he’ll do anything to get his son saved.

It’s Epiphany. Perhaps the question here is this: how far will God go (come) to save God’s children? It may be that the Royal is as much a model of God as he is a client of Jesus.

References and Resources

Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Augsburg-Fortress, 1998.

Meier, John P. “The Historical Jesus and the Historical Herodians.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 119, no. 4, Society of Biblical Literature, 2000, pp. 740–46, https://doi.org/10.2307/3268526.

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